Kevin Gage's Sheffield United Column: So far, so good for the Blades in the Premier League - here's how I feel they can go to the next level when the time comes
So at face value, another Blades away day last Saturday and we’re still unbeaten on our travels in this big scary Premier League!
Having said that though, I don’t think anyone would begin to pretend that Vicarage Road has ever put the fear of God into a visiting team and this current Watford team definitely didn’t do so either.
In fact the only scares we really had were purely self-inflicted when lapses of concentration and a minor slip from a centre-back resulted in a missed chance or two for the home side. I say ‘missed’ chance but that doesn’t actually do justice to the two saves made by Dean Henderson who immediately redeemed himself for his fumble last week - not only in the eyes of the travelling Blades, but also in the eyes of the whole football public I hope.
We never doubted you Deano, to be honest, and more importantly nor did your manager… Tyrannosaurus Tufty, the old ‘dinosaur’ himself!
Another point gained then, and to be honest in the Watford pub beforehand the feeling was that we’d be more than happy to go home with one. Watford were actually overdue a win, and despite being bottom weren’t that bad a team - so a few stats had implied and a few people had told me. Guess what? They were wrong.
Watford appeared a team with little to zero ambition, had totally changed the shape of their team to combat us and as the game unfolded, it very quickly became clear that they weren’t actually very good at all. We dominated from start to finish, but only in the sense that it sometimes appeared to be a bit of a ‘keep-ball’ training session for us at times as we played triangles all round the Watford midfield.
As a passing exercise, with Oliver Norwood on top ‘quarterback’ form and finding his ‘wide-receivers’ beautifully, it was certainly great to watch, but games of football are not won on how many passes you string together or how much possession you have.
Possession percentages continue to be the most meaningless statistic in the modern game today, as the 61 per cent we had proved on Saturday. Did we really do enough in the opposition’s final third, in and around the penalty area to win? Probably not, to be honest. We lacked the killer pass instinct and when we had a few limited opportunities to drive and dribble at defenders in and around the penalty box, we took the easier passing or hopeful crossing option instead.
We are usually better than that, to be fair, and a big part of our success over the Chris Wilder era has been to create these wonderful scoring chances from our incisive cutting play in these wide areas, getting in and around the back of defences.
Yes, I accept we are playing against better teams this season, but we have proved we are still capable of doing so. Think back to the first goal against Chelsea, the equaliser v Bournemouth, the Everton goal, the many chances v Liverpool, etc etc… there seemed to be a bit of a lack of belief in our forward play at Watford.
As an attacking unit, we need to rediscover and find our front-foot attacking feet… and the sooner the better too, please.
Lots of chatter and ‘noise’ too about the fabled ‘No.10’ role in this current Blades set-up. Or rather the lack of one, to be technically correct. We’ve been spoilt over past three seasons as we’ve had two central midfielders, with the luxury of a floating attacking midfielder in the ‘10’ role. In fact, a ‘Duffy’ for want of a better description.
But of course with our new solid midfield three of John Lundstram, Norwood and John Fleck, that luxury player has been sacrificed and you have to say the results and performances have completely justified the new shape. In short, it works… usually. It works when a midfielder breaks the lines and gets into advanced positions by making those forward runs either with or without the ball.
It also works when we have a centre-forward who can drop off his marker to collect the ball and allow us to build up play. It certainly works defensively – we have proved with yet another clean sheet that we are extremely difficult to break down, and are now unbeaten on our travels in 13 games with only one solitary defeat in nearly a whole year.
And with a run of very difficult games on the horizon - with the likes of Premier League giants Arsenal, Spurs and Man Utd coming up, plus a revitalised West Ham and a buoyant Burnley - I can’t see our shape or strategy changing anytime soon either. We are averaging about a point a game so far, and if you offered me five points from those next five games, I’d happily take them.
But here’s the conundrum. Is our current set-up actually going to evolve and be creatively good enough to take advantage of some of the so-called ‘lesser’ teams in this division and can we turn these draws into enough wins to get comfortably above the point-a-game average? In December we have six games - ending with Watford at home on Boxing Day – that could actually shape our season to a large extent.
Six very winnable games, and given our defensive strength, six I definitely wouldn’t be expecting to lose. At what stage of the season does our shape change slightly, then, to maybe put the midfield emphasis more on the attacking intent than the solid structured secure one? It’s a tough call. I don’t think it will done at Spurs away or Man Utd at home for instance, but home to Newcastle or Villa or Watford maybe?
And away to Norwich and Brighton? Do we play one shape away from home, but a different one at Bramall Lane? The old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” actually springs to mind, but what if it doesn’t need “fixing” so much, but just tweaking and improving?
Whatever we are doing and however we are doing it, it certainly “ain’t broke” anyway as having now played four of the current top six, conceding just seven goals, and being widely praised for our performances, we can now pause during the international break, take stock and reflect on an excellent start to the season.
It’s been great to watch and be involved in so far, and in fact some of the games and performances, certainly at Bramall Lane, have been so near and yet so far too in terms of getting the points we’ve probably deserved.
So in conclusion, it’s so far, so good. Can we be better? In my opinion, yes. Can we be good enough to win these games and then flourish in this division? Again, it’s yes from me. Does it need to happen fairly soon? Yes please, sooner rather than later. Not too soon though, but as and when we need to and are capable of.
It’s horses for courses at the moment and it’s long, testing track in the Premier League steeplechase. We’re right in the pack and doing OK. And don’t bet against us lasting the course just fine.